According To New Tapes, Richard Nixon Tried To Screw NFL Fans Forever

It's hard, in 2012, to imagine anyone being upset about Redskins games not airing on local television. Presumably it would be a treat for the long-suffering fans in DC.

But in 1972, back when all teams' home games—even playoffs—were blacked out on their local stations, regardless of whether the games had sold out, Nixon faced pressure from angry Redskins fans, and he, too, wanted to watch the Skins.

Again: Pete Rozelle's NFL, prior to 1973, did not televise teams' home games in their local markets. One either had to go to the game—and sometimes one couldn't, because the game was sold out—or listen to it on the radio. The NFL has always hated its fans.

The Packers were visiting RFK Stadium for a divisional-round playoff game on December 24, and the league announced, again, that the game would be blacked out in DC, so Nixon worked the phones and proposed a deal that could have doomed NFL fans forever.

In a Dec. 19, 1972, telephone call just days before that game, Nixon told Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst to relay this message to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle: "If you make the move, for these playoff games, we will block any—any —legislation to stop anything else. I will fight it personally and veto any —any—legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it. And we'll sustain the veto. ... Go all out on it and tell him he's got the president's personal commitment. I'm for pro football all the way, and I think it's not in pro football's interest to allow this to build up because before you know it, they'll have the damn Congress go all the way. We don't want Congress to go all the way."

Translated from Nixonian doublespeak: If Rozelle lifted the playoff blackout, Nixon would have his back on sustaining the regular-season blackout forever. (In another taped conversation with aides, Nixon sounds like proto-Jim Mora: "The folks should be able to see the goddamn games on television," he said. "Playoff games. Playoffs—all playoff games should be available.") There was talk then of Congress commanding the NFL to lift the regular-season blackout, and Nixon volunteered to fight Congress.

But Rozelle said no. He would test his luck with Congress. The Redskins beat Green Bay 16-3 on the 24th, and then beat the Cowboys 26-3 on the 31st, and no one in DC saw the games. The Redskins lost in the Super Bowl.

By 1973, Congress had indeed come for the NFL's blackout policy, threatening to yank the league's antitrust exemption, and we wound up with the bargain we still have today: Home games are blacked out in local markets if not sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. (The FCC is presently reviewing this rule, under pressure from something called the Sports Fans Coalition, a lobbying group funded in part by cable and satellite providers.)

But if the rule sticks around, and fans in Tampa and Cincinnati and Oakland and Jacksonville and San Diego and Buffalo are stuck missing occasional games, just think: If Nixon had his way, it could have been so much worse.

NFL nixed Nixon bid on TV blackouts [AP, via ESPN]